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Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Page: 2813

Mr PERRETT (11:34 AM) —I am proud to speak in favour of the Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (2007 Election Commitments) Bill 2008, which delivers on several commitments made by the Rudd government during the 2007 election campaign. This bill addresses a number of longstanding concerns of veterans that the Howard government failed to act upon. Australia’s ex-service community have given their best for our country and obviously they deserve our best in return. I think the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has said it best. As opposition leader in August last year, he said:

There is perhaps no greater duty that we as a nation and as a parliament have than to honour, remember and express our gratitude to those Australians who have served in the defence of our nation in times of war, because our security and liberty have not come without a price.

I think the Prime Minister, with a Vietnam veteran brother, would know as well as any family the impact that serving can have on a family back home in Australia.

The Rudd Labor government promised a fresh approach to veterans’ affairs and committed to work in partnership with the ex-service community on the issues that concerned them. I well remember the current Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Minister Griffin, coming to Moreton, to a pub in Moorooka, and meeting with the veterans community during the election campaign. The veterans community and the RSL representatives that were there had respect for him, because he told them straight, ‘These are the things that we can have some progress on and these are the things that are much more difficult.’ There was no political speak; it was just plain, hard truth. The best thing about that is that he has since delivered for the community, because this bill obviously delivers on that commitment and those promises and on our commitment to support veterans and their families.

One of the most significant measures contained in this bill is to extend the income support supplement to war widows and widowers under qualifying age without dependants. War widow pension recipients must currently meet a number of conditions before they can receive the additional income support supplement. To qualify they must be of qualifying age—60 or more for males and over 58½ for females—be permanently blind or permanently incapacitated and unable to work, have a dependent child or children and be the partner of a person who is receiving an income support pension from either the Department of Veterans’ Affairs or Centrelink. This bill amends the Veterans’ Entitlements Act to remove all eligibility criteria for the income support supplement if the person is a war widow or widower.

I understand the war widows pension is currently paid at $582.40 per fortnight. There are currently about 110,000 recipients, of which 83,000 receive the income and asset tested income support supplement. This bill will allow all recipients of the WWP to access the income support supplement as long as their income or assets do not exceed the limits. This will potentially help an additional 1,400 war widows and widowers. By removing the age limits, the income support supplement will now be available to help younger war widows and widowers and wholly dependent partners.

This bill also extends disability pension bereavement payments. A widow or widower of a veteran currently receives a bereavement payment of 12 weeks of disability pension upon the death of the veteran or member. This payment helps to assist the person adjust to his or her financial situation, given that the pension of the deceased person obviously will stop. This payment will be extended to the estate of single veterans or members in receipt of the special rate disability pension or extreme disablement adjustment disability pension who die in indigent circumstances. It is sad to think that we live in a society where that is the case, but obviously there are many people who come back with troubled lives and unfortunately do not necessarily kick on and become successful in business et cetera. So this payment will help cover liabilities, including funeral expenses, so that the nation does its best to honour its service people. This payment is in addition to a funeral benefit, which is also payable to indigent veterans or members and is a contribution towards funeral costs.

Finally, this bill also extends the automatic grant of war widow and war widower pensions. These are currently only granted automatically to some intermediate rate disability pensioners, where the disability involves the loss of one or more limbs. In line with the Rudd government’s election commitment, and in line with the commitments that now Minister Griffin made throughout the election campaign and in his meetings with the veterans community, this bill will ensure the automatic grant of the war widows pension to the surviving partners of certain classes of disability pensioners from 1 July 2008. This includes totally and permanently incapacitated and extreme disablement adjustment pensioners. As well as the war widows pension, surviving partners will receive the income support supplement and the gold card for treatment. This is expected to benefit more than 20 new war widows and widowers each year.

Disability is not always as obvious as an amputated limb. I think we are all aware of the other conditions that can result but that are not as obvious as amputated limbs. Other physical disabilities—for example, a heart condition—as well as psychiatric disabilities connected to war or armed service can be just as debilitating. It was interesting just this week to meet so many of the veterans from the Coral and Balmoral battles in Vietnam and to talk to some of them about how they had adjusted to war. It was a very proud night—40 years too late, in a way—and it was great that they felt that they and their contributions were being recognised. I had the honour of meeting some of those veterans at the reception organised by the Prime Minister and the opposition leader. It was great to hear how many of them had coped and adjusted but also very sad to hear of how some of their comrades and friends from the military had not adjusted and had brought home baggage. Whilst it was a wonderful evening and a great honour for me to meet many of those veterans, it brought home how this legislation will benefit people who are suffering from psychiatric disabilities and the like. This bill introduces a much fairer system. It will also provide some peace of mind to veterans and their families during a vulnerable and difficult time.

In my time as a candidate in the 2004 election and in just being a member of the Moreton community, I have met an incredible number of returned servicemen. In fact, I was fortunate enough to have a returned serviceman on my campaign team. David Forde was fantastic as a campaign person but he also gave me insights into the veteran community. I am going to mention some of the RSLs and veterans communities in my electorate to acknowledge the great work that they do. I especially mention Fred Dempsey from the Salisbury RSL Sub Branch, who runs some of the tightest Anzac Day and Remembrance Day ceremonies I have ever experienced. I do have to occasionally remind him that I am not in the military, but he ignores that and treats everyone like they are in the military and gives them orders accordingly. The Sherwood-Indooroopilly RSL Sub Branch do great work throughout the north-western part of Moreton. The Stephens RSL Sub Branch have made many representations to me, do great work in the northern part of my electorate and run a fantastic Anzac Day ceremony. The Yeronga-Dutton Park RSL Sub Branch also run some great Anzac Day ceremonies. In fact, I was fortunate enough to speak at their most recent one. It was actually in the Prime Minister’s electorate but only across the road from mine, so I felt I was justified in going into that electorate.

I would especially mention the Sunnybank RSL Sub Branch and their president, Robert Lippiatt, who leads a magnificent team that have done many significant projects in the Sunnybank area. They are particularly active in the schools, running great Anzac Day ceremonies and engaging with young people. There were about 2,500 to 3,000 people at the recent Sunnybank Anzac Day ceremony, which was just incredible, with people being bused in from everywhere. They do great work in the schools to educate the young people, but they also reach out to the veterans community. They are setting up a men’s shed. They are really a forward-thinking RSL sub-branch and a great asset to our community. I especially commend Robert Lippiatt and his team. There are also other groups that are not so much bolted to the one area such as the Defence Services Nurses RSL Sub Branch; the Diggers Association; the RSL ex-RAAF—I mention particularly Les Watts, one of my constituents, who chews my ear every single time I see him about the role of the RAF; the War Widows Guild of Australia; and, lastly, Brisbane Legacy, who do an incredible job as well.

I will mention one particular other organisation, because I have a letter in front of me from Laurie Woods, who is part of the 460 Squadron (RAAF) Association, Queensland Branch. He recently took off to Holland to present a painting of the Manna drop that they had commissioned. I will not go into the details of that—it is not appropriate whilst talking to this legislation—but it was certainly an interesting time in Australian military history. On behalf of the Australian 460 Lancaster Squadron, he presented this painting to the Dutch nation. I have seen the painting and it is a fantastic painting. It is about looking after, caring for and honouring the Australian airmen who lost their lives over Europe. Of the 3,486, approximately 2,000 are buried in Holland. So it was certainly a perilous existence and it was great that Laurie Woods was able to go there to present that painting.

This legislation is obviously all about making a much fairer system. Anything we can do that will give peace of mind to veterans and their families during a vulnerable and difficult time is to be commended. Making the grant automatically available should make the difficult time when someone passes away a little more tolerable. The legislation removes the requirements for a surviving partner to make a claim for a war widows pension and then satisfy the various requirements.

I thank Minister Alan Griffin for bringing this important legislation before the House. It continues his history of listening to the veterans community and then delivering on as many of their aspirations, wishes and needs as possible. I am proud to stand up here for the Australian ex-service community and support this bill. Although I am obviously not from the ex-service community, it is an honour to represent them and I look forward to continuing to do so for a long time. Once again, I thank Minister Alan Griffin for bringing in this legislation.